In Faith Under Fire, a memoir about Benimoff’s life as an Army chaplain in Iraq, Benimoff and co-author Eve Conant describe his return from Iraq to his family in Colorado and subsequent assignment to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He retreated deep into himself, spending hours on the computer and racking up ten thousand dollars in debt on eBay. Above all, he was angry and jittery, scared even of his young sons, and barely able to make it through the day. He was eventually admitted to Coatesville’s “Psych Ward.” For a while the lock-down facility was his home. He wondered where God was in all of this, and was not alone in that bewilderment and pain.
In a 2004 study of approximately 1,400 Vietnam veterans, almost 90 percent Christian, researchers at Yale found that nearly one-third said the war had shaken their faith in God and that their religion no longer provided comfort for them. The Yale study found that these soldiers were more likely than others to seek mental health treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) when they came home. It was not that these veterans had unusually high confidence in government or especially good information about services at VA hospitals. Instead, they had fallen into a spiritual abyss and were desperate to find a way out. The trauma of war seems to be especially acute for men and women whose faith in a benevolent God is challenged by the carnage they have witnessed.
Of course, not all veterans with mental health concerns are led to VA hospitals by a loss of faith: many simply want to get a night’s sleep without being terrorized by nightmares. Whatever kind of assistance they are seeking, it has been in increasingly short supply. The decline in resources for veterans’ mental health services started in the 1980s, as part of a nationwide effort to move psychiatric patients into outpatient treatment. The number of inpatient psychiatric beds fell from 9,000 in the late ’80s to 3,000 by 2008.
During the Iraq war, however, the great difficulty veterans experienced in getting psychiatric care—greater than before—was not a product of cost-cutting, but of conviction: many Bush administration officials believed that soldiers who supported the war would not face psychological problems, and if they did, they would find comfort in faith. In a resigned tone, one prominent researcher who worked for the VA, and asked that he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press, explained that high-ranking officials believed that “Jesus fixes everything.” Benimoff and the others who returned with devastating psychological injuries found a faith-based bureau within the VA. At veterans’ hospitals, chaplains were conducting spirituality assessments of patients.
The story of the mistreatment of returning veterans from Iraq is well known and shocking. But the role of religious ideology in that mistreatment—how, inside the government, it was a potent tool in the betrayal of an overwhelmingly Christian Army—is much less known.
“I couldn’t stand to hear that phrase any longer—‘God was watching over me,’” Benimoff wrote.
He wasn’t watching over the good men I knew in Iraq. Faith was the center of my life yet it failed to explain why I came home and those soldiers did not. The phrase was a Christian nicety, a cliché that when put to the test didn’t fit reality.